Learn how to shape metal

Alan (Cor­nish) learns to love The English Wheel. English Wheel none too sure about him though

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Inside - WORDS & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ALAN SEE­LEY

SKILLED OP­ER­A­TORS of English wheels are held in some rev­er­ence in the en­gi­neer­ing com­mu­nity. Form­ing sheet metal on these ma­chines into com­pound-curved pan­els is a cu­ri­ous mix of art and en­gi­neer­ing re­quir­ing a good deal of skill and an un­der­stand­ing of both. How do these ma­gi­cians of metal and sor­cer­ers of sheet achieve the volup­tuous curves in their work? Alan Wood­ward of Spe­cial­ized Prod­ucts is a man who knows and he agreed to give us a few in­sights.

It’s hard to re­late a 16swg alu­minium sheet with the Egli Vin­cent banana tank Alan is show­ing us as de­mon­stra­tion of his skill. Harder still to link its smooth curves with the mute jaws of the mas­sive English wheels on which Alan works his craft. The ma­chine it­self is of un­cer­tain vin­tage, al­though Alan says, “It’s prob­a­bly 1940s.” It was bought sec­ond­hand by his fa­ther Don when he set up Spe­cial­ized Prod­ucts in the 1960s, has sur­vived a work­shop in­ferno and faith­fully formed metal for many thou­sands of hours over the decades. The top curve of the wheels’ cast iron frame bears the leg­end ‘Ge­orge Ken­drick Ltd., Birm­ing­ham’, a now dis­solved con­cern that sup­plied English wheels to a good many coach­builders and work­shops. Be­fore we get to work with the wheels them­selves, Alan has to cut out a piece of sheet alu­minium to a pat­tern es­tab­lished by his fa­ther when he first added Egli tanks to his ex­ten­sive reper­toire. Wield­ing the tin-snips and cut­ting through the ally with the ease of a tai­lor run­ning shears through some woollen

pin­stripe, Alan im­parts a tip which, if we learn noth­ing else to­day, will surely prove in­valu­able. “Keep the top blade of the snips flat to the work­piece,” he says, “that way you won’t wind up with an edge like a ser­rated bean can top.” In­deed the cut sheet’s edges are so smooth you al­most think you could work it with­out gloves. Not that you would [see pic, right... – JM].

Alan drills holes where the mid­dle of the tank filler will even­tu­ally go, and the end of the re­cess for the head­stock. “You’d never be able to fig­ure it out later,” he says.

The next pre­lim­i­nary is clean­ing the wheels. “Alu­minium marks very eas­ily on the wheels and it’s a night­mare to re­move any pits and scratches,” he says. To demon­strate the point he takes a hair, puts it on a piece of scrap sheet and rolls it through the wheels. The alu­minium now has a fur­row in it deep enough to catch a fin­ger­nail. “That’s why the wheels have to be scrupu­lously cleaned be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter,” he says, set­ting to with a ny­lon abra­sive pad and then a rag.

While he’s at it we en­quire whether the wheels them­selves have par­tic­u­lar names. “Top wheel, bot­tom wheel,” he grins, in­di­cat­ing the top and in­deed the bot­tom wheel. “They’re also called the rolling wheel and the anvil wheel, and the con­tact area be­tween the two is the ‘blow’ as in ham­mer blow. If you think of the English wheels in terms of beat­ing out sheet with a plan­ish­ing ham­mer on a sand­bag, then the bot­tom wheel is ef­fec­tively the ham­mer. The amount of pres­sure or ‘weight’ on the con­tact area is de­ter­mined by the foot ad­juster which closes the gap be­tween the wheels.”

Plac­ing the buck for the Egli tank on the bench for ref­er­ence, Alan dons his gloves

“You’ve bug­gered that up,” says Alan, as he’s handed some­thing that looks more like it’s been run over by a trac­tor wheel”

and picks up the cut alu­minium sheet. In­sert­ing it be­tween the wheels he kicks a bit of weight on with the screw wheel and gives the metal a few passes. “You have to give it long strokes and don’t get too close to the edges or you’ll take the curves out as quickly as you put them in,” he ad­vises as he works. “By adding weight you make the gap be­tween the wheels nar­rower than the thick­ness of the metal. This al­lows the metal to be stretched to form com­pound curves or what I call ‘shape’. If you were work­ing only in one di­rec­tion you’d be sim­ply

mak­ing a bend and the metal wouldn’t need to be stretched. Too lit­tle weight and you’ll be there for­ever, too much and you will have more shape than you’re af­ter.”

In the ab­sence of gauges on this wholly man­ual ma­chine, how much weight is just right we won­der. “You get a feel for it,” says Alan, “have a go.” What, al­ready? And on a piece of sheet in­tended for an ac­tual tank? “I don’t want to bug­ger it up,” I say. “You won’t bug­ger it up,” says Alan, “I’m off to cut the sheet for the other pan­els.”

Here goes noth­ing. Al­though in­ert, the English wheels seem to be pos­sessed of a mind of their own. The sheet veers to the op­po­site side from that which I’m in­tend­ing to steer it to­wards. The wheels skit­ter close to the edge of the metal and some­times be­yond, de­fy­ing all at­tempts to haul it back on course. The long easy strokes Alan man­aged seem im­pos­si­ble with any amount of weight ap­plied, and even to the un­tu­tored eye the marks left where the strokes have stopped and started don’t look like part of the de­sired re­sult.

“You’ve bug­gered that up,” says Alan, as he’s handed some­thing that looks more like it’s been run over by a trac­tor wheel than formed in English wheels when he re­turns with the other pieces of cut sheet. How­ever the bug­ger­a­tion is not to­tal. Alan re­moves ex­cess shape by wheel­ing the edges and the stop/start marks dis­ap­pear with a lit­tle more ef­fort. “You have to keep the panel flow­ing and work it as a whole. Tell the metal where to go. Over­lap the blows to avoid form­ing ridges and the lines must fol­low through to get any ridges and de­fects out. Use a lit­tle less weight close to the edges too to keep things smooth,” he says as he rec­ti­fies the mis­takes.

Con­fi­dent I’ve learned my les­son, he lets me have an­other go. The im­prove­ments are in­stant and plac­ing the panel over the buck, it’s close to the re­quired shape.

Alan bends up one of the sides for the tank, un­der­tak­ing all the work on that him­self as he’d like this tank to be done be­fore the mer­cury drops in Hades.

He then reprises the alu­minium gas weld­ing mas­ter­class from a cou­ple of is­sues ago to join the two pan­els. The English wheels will then be de­ployed to smooth out the weld like those you can see on the com­pleted tank.

“It’s im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing to get this from a flat sheet of metal,” he says. “English wheels de­mand con­cen­tra­tion and you need to learn to un­der­stand the metal. For me it’s all about per­sis­tence, oth­er­wise I would have got a proper job years ago.”

But who wants a proper job when you can be an artist?

Let’s be fair to the boy. Alan W ac­tu­ally used Alan S’s work on a cus­tomer’s tank.

Drool­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a hard job half-done

Two Alans: both ques­tion­ing the con­cept of trans­fer­able skills

Keep the snips at 90˚ for a clean cut

Watch and learn. Do and strug­gle. It ain’t easy It fits where it touches. Not a bad ef­fort Welds go into the wheels to be flat­tened Thing of beauty and 35 hours’ worth of graft Alan W works his magic with torch and rod FIN­ISHED

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